Do historians agree that most wars are caused by religion?

I'm not a historian, but this is a very common claim that crops up in debates over God's existence and religious scripture. What is the opinion of the community of professional historians?

The idea that "most wars are caused by religion" is trivially false. From what I can see, this is a rhetoric rooted in a critique of theism, rather than serious historical analysis. Even a casual survey of history shows most wars had little to nothing to do with religious differences - according to quasi-original research on Wikipedia, only 6.98% of known conflicts were religious.

To my knowledge, there has been no formal polling of academics on the subject. Nonetheless, we may infer a prevailing opinion of historians from their research. While existing works only examine the modern period, they all point to the same conclusion: Territory, not religion, is the most common cause of war.

Territorial disputes is the leading cause of war throughout the centuries. Source: Holsti, Kalevi J. Peace and War: Armed Conflicts and International Order, 1648-1989. Cambridge University Press, 1991.

(Although the works cited below are time-limited, there is no obvious reason to believe the underlying patterns of wars would be significantly different in the pre-modern world. Even the Muslim Conquests or the Christian Crusades were isolated and punctuated by many non-religious conflicts. The European Wars of Religion were a historical aberration, not the norm.)

First, let's consider the analysis of modern wars by Evan Luard. He divided post-1400 history into five periods and noted that the primary causes of war shifted over time. To briefly summarise, his findings were:

  1. Age of Dynasties (1400-1559): conflicts over territory were linked to dynastic claims.
  2. Age of Religion (1559-1648): religious conflicts triggered conflicts over territory, but non-religious wars of opportunity also took place.
  3. Age of Reason (1648-1789): religion vanished as a cause of war, to be replaced by conflicts over strategic territories and dynastic succession.
  4. Age of Nationalism (1789-1917): wars became increasingly linked to identity and national independence - territories were a common cause of war in colonial empires, Latin America as well as the Far East.
  5. Age of Ideology (1917-1986): political ideology dominated the causes of war.

However, other historians have noted that:

[W]hile Luard declines to nominate territory as the dominant factor throughout the centuries, nevertheless, territorial issues keep cropping up in his analysis - in connection with issues of succession, dynastic disputes, or state creation. Thus, Luard probably underestimates the importance of territorial issues in fomenting wars.

Cashman, Greg. What Causes War?: an introduction to theories of international conflict. Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2013.

Luard's analysis is evaluative rather than qualitative. For the latter, consider the survey by Kalevi Holsti in 1991. He divided the post-Westphalia history of conflict into five periods and attempted to classify their causes into rather narrow categories. The results were as follows:

As you can see,

"Territorial issues" are the only ones that have been among the dominant issues in each of the periods [1648-1714, 1715-1814, 1815-1914, 1914-41, and 1945-89]. In four of the five periods, more wars have involved territorial issues than any other kind of issue, exceeded only in 1815-1914 by the "maintain the integrity of state/empire" issue, which is an issue obviously related to territorial concerns.

Vasquez, John A. The War Puzzle Revisited. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

In contrast, as you can see from the table, religion began at only 6% and has steadily declined since then. This is dwarfed by the number of wars over control of land or resources, even in our current period when territorial conflicts are at a historical low. As the following table demonstrates that territorial disputes constitute the vast majority of all wars since Westphalia:

Source: Vasquez, John A. The War Puzzle Revisited. Cambridge University Press, 2009.

Of course, Holsti's analysis began only after the European Wars of Religion, identified by Luard as the same period religious differences were a leading cause of war. Nonetheless, the fact that religion all but disappeared as a cause for war in the centuries since is strong prima facie evidence against the claim that it could have caused "most wars".

Fundamentally speaking, wars are nearly always driven by some kind of self-interest. Land, historically near synonymous with wealth, was of prime interest to most polities. Consequently - without discounting the genuine effects faith may have on true believers - religious (as well as ideological, nationalistic, etc) reasons are just as likely a source of legitimacy for using force, as it is a motivation in and of itself.

Do historians agree that most wars are caused by religion?

No, historians have not formed such a consensus. There are numerous scholarly works reaching back 5 millennia demonstrating that this belief is apocryphal. This work demonstrates religion historically has played a small role in wars either as a major or minor cause.

Is Religion the Cause of Most Wars?
History simply does not support the hypothesis that religion is the major cause of conflict. The wars of the ancient world were rarely if ever, based on religion.

… an objective look at history reveals that those killed in the name of religion have, in fact, been a tiny fraction in the bloody history of human conflict. In their recently published book, “Encyclopedia of Wars,” authors Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod document the history of recorded warfare, and from their list of 1763 wars only 123 have been classified to involve a religious cause, accounting for less than 7 percent of all wars and less than 2 percent of all people killed in warfare.

A Different source: The Encyclopedia of War edited by Gordon Martel says if one excludes 40 little understood internal wars fought by the Islamic Caliphate religious wars drop to only 3% of all wars in its pages.

Institute for Economics and Peace issued a report in 2014 which further supports these numbers.

So Historians, reviewing 5 millennia worth of war, have reached the opposite conclusion. Religion is a reason for war, but not the reason for most wars.

Wars are often blamed on a single reason but typically caused by a combination of reasons. Yes Religion is among the reasons historically countries go to war, it is even a primary cause of some conflicts like the Crusades, Thirty Years' War, and the Lebanese War 1975-1990 Religion is not the primary reason historically speaking for most wars.

Common (major and minor) Reasons for War:

  1. Economic gain: (oil, natural gas, nickel, etc ).
  • Anglo-Indian Wars (1766-1849)
    A series of wars fought by British East India Company leading to the colonization of India.
  • The Winter War (1939-1940)
    The Soviet Union invaded Finland in order to control the nickel mines.
  • The American Revolution
    For America a revolutionary war, for the French who allied with the United States against Britain it was fought over trade routes and commerce. The French involvement began first with a trade agreement with the Colonies and only after that was signed a declaration for French military assistance against Britain.
  • WWII, in the Pacific The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor in order to seize commodities in Asia.
  • Iraq's invasion of Kuwait.
    Iraq invaded Kuwait to seize the oil and alleviate their war debt with the Kingdom.
  • South China Sea
    The ongoing dispute with China over the South China Sea, It's about 11 billion barrels of untapped oil and 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas estimated to exist in the disputed territory.
  1. Territorial Gain
  • Mexican-American War (1846-1848). It was a land grab. The slogan manifest destiny spoke to the United States desire to become a two Ocean country. (Atlantic and Pacific). The War facilitated the United States purchase of what is now the American South West as well as California.
  • Arab-Israeli War or "Six Day War" (1967-1988)
    After years of small-scale conflict when Egypt blockaded the straight of Tiran, Israel attacked gaining the Sinai Peninsula, the West Bank, and Golan Heights effectively tripling the size of the Israeli state.
  • Russia's invasion of the Crimea (2014)
  1. Nationalism
  • World War I
  1. Revenge
  • World War II (invasion of France by Germany) One of Hitler's stated reasons for invading France was to reverse the Treaty of Paris which ended WWII which he felt treated Germany unfairly and was a factor in Germany's impoverishment in the interwar period. He met with French representatives in the same train car which hosted the WWI summit which ended the Great War and even had the memorial in Paris to the historic treaty blown up.
  1. Civil Wars and or Revolutions
    Fought over disputes which arise internally to countries or over a change of leadership.
  • American Civil War (1861-1865)
  • Russian Civil War (1917-1923)
  • Spanish Civil War (1936-1939)
  • Korean War (1950-1953)
  • French Revolution (1789-1799)
  • Haitian Revolution (1791-1804)

Addressing the Comments

Steven Burnap
"Lebensraum" was an explicit aim of Germany in WWII. The Japanese actions that lead to WWII in China, as well as their invasion of the Philippines, was also very much about gaining territory. Though this really just goes to show that history usually doesn't fit into neat categories. "Religious war" being a neat category.

@Steven Burnap, Hitler's book Mein Kampf, was written in two volumes, The first volume, entitled Die Abrechnung (“The Settlement [of Accounts],” or “Revenge”), calls for revenge against France for its destruction of Germany's first and second Reichs.

Specifically, Hitler discusses the 30 Years War in which Germany's first Reich (Holy Roman Empire) was eviscerated by the French in 1648, with the Peace of Westphalia. Secondly and famously the treatment of Germany in the surrender documents ending WWI which both impoverished Germany in the interwar period and ended Germany's second Reich, Imperial Germany ()1871-1918 ending Kaiser Wilhelm and the end of WWI.

In Hitler's first volume he dedicates the title to the major theme of his foreign policy. Revenge against France. To your point Hitler also discusses "Lebensraum" in his first volume, the need for "Living Space" for Germany and says Germany will gain this in the east at the expense of the Slavs: Czechoslovakia, Poland, Belarus, Ukraine, and Russia.

A major stated goal of Hitler's Third Reich was to address the downfall of the first and second German Reichs at the hands of the French. In June of 1940, Hitler drove this point home with what National Geographic calls his Revenge Treaty in which France surrenders to Germany June of 1940. Hitler held the surrender ceremony in the same boxcar in which France had hosted Germany's surrender in WWI. Designed the entire venue to embarrass the French referencing Germany's previous treatment by the then victorious French in WWI. Just after this ceremony Hitler personally ordered Frances Rethondes Clearing memorial to WWI's German surrender blown up with dynamite.

As for Japan's war in China, I don't dispute what you say. What I said was Japan attacked the United States, Dec 7, 1941, over oil. The attack was to clear obstacles to Japan's real target of that offensive, the Dutch East Indies -- now Indonesia.

On July 26, 1941, the American President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed an executive order which froze Japan's assets in the United States and cut Japan off from 93% of their Oil all of which was imported. Japan had about a year and a half of oil in their strategic reserve and after that, they would not be able to continue their war in China. Japan attacked Pearl Harbor on Dec 7, 1941; and invaded Dutch East Indies Dec 8th to secure what was then the 4th largest oil exporter in the world behind the U.S., Iran, and Romania and guarantee Japan would be energy independent. Japan also gained access to rubber production facilities and iron mines both of which were important, but oil was the most important material they seized in the days after Pearl Harbor.

Japan's Dutch East India Campaign
Access to oil was one of the linchpins of the Japanese war effort, as Japan has no native source of oil;15 it could not even produce enough to meet even 10% of its needs,13 even with the extraction of oil shale in Manchuria using the Fushun process.16 Japan quickly lost 93 percent of its oil supply after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order on 26 July 1941 which froze all of Japan's U.S. assets and embargoed all oil exports to Japan.17 In addition, the Dutch government in exile, at the urging of the Allies and with the support of Queen Wilhelmina, broke its economic treaty with Japan and joined the embargo in August.15 Japan's military and economic reserves included only a year and a half's worth of oil.13 As a U.S. declaration of war against Japan was feared if the latter took the East Indies, the Japanese planned to eliminate the U.S. Pacific Fleet, allowing them to overtake the islands; this led to the attack on Pearl Harbor.

In addition to the good answers given already, I'd like to point out that wars are typically not mono-causal. Very often, several reasons as well as causes (i.e. sparks that light the fire) come together for a war to start.

In addition, the reasons given in public are often not the actual reasons. There are a number of explicitly religious wars (the Islamic conquests of Europe, the European answer aka The Crusades). In many other wars, religion played a role in the "us vs. them" sense - religion is one of the factors that bind people together and separates them from other people, just like language, skin colour, etc. It is easier to start a war against "others" than against "like us".

And finally, there are many parties involved in wars. The head of state might declare the war, but there are so many different people with interests involved and for some of them a financial profit might be important, for some of them territorial gains, and for some of the religion. These goals also change during the course of a war or in parts of the war. For example, JMS gave "revenge" as the reason for WW2, but the attack on Russia had other reasons, and the war in North Africa was purely for resources. Meanwhile, WW2 also had the Asian part with Japan as the aggressor, which again had different reasons to start their part.

Identifying one reason for a specific war is most likely an oversimplification. So the question as phrased doesn't even make sense because it asks to identify a mono-causal relationship which in reality does not exist.

Religion certainly played a role in most pre-modern-times wars, though it was more often used as a cover for more simple desires (taking land, resources, disputes over hierarchy or succession, etc.) than the other way around.

I'm not a professional historian, just interested in history. From what I've found in books and other resources, historians would not, in general, agree that anything is the #1 source of wars, simply because wars are not so easy. That begins with the difference between reason and cause - between what the background of the conflict is and what often small spark caused the conflict to finally erupt. WW1 is a good example for that, it was caused by the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, but if that hadn't happened, something else would have most likely caused the war that everyone was pretty much waiting for.

That makes it difficult to ascertain if religion contributes to that background. For the king or whoever, it is certainly easier to start a war if he can also add religious reasons to the motivation. The 30 years war is an example where religion played a major role, but many other often regional causes added to the mix until the whole thing exploded.

Q Do historians agree that most wars are caused by religion?

Most historians agree that most wars cannot be described with a monocausal reason.

There is a big bunch of problems associated with asking the question in this way. Definitions, conceptualisations, perspective, timeframe and grammar are all undetermined or off. Is this about whether the claim as such is true or about an assumed majority opinion of historians; now or previously?

Just a thought: Who started the Global War on Terrorism? The Americans? Al-Qaeda? For what reasons (aka "cause")? Is religion the main causative motivator for the American led forces? Is it for "the other side"? Perhaps a minority might answer yes to religion as a motivator for American forces, but surely most will accept the narrative that bin-Laden and his followers were primarily religion motivated? Or do they emphasise his apology that he became offended when American troops were stationed on Saudi-Arabian soil, making this again about land and territory, 'holy' or not? But perhaps it is different yet?

Bush's war openly remains a cosmic battle between nothing less than the transcendent forces of good and evil. Such a battle is necessarily unlimited and open-ended, and so justifies radical actions-the abandonment, for example, of established notions of civic justice at home and of traditional alliances abroad.
James Carrol: "The Bush Crusade. Sacred violence, again unleashed in 2001, could prove as destructive as in 1096.", The Nation, September 2, 2004

Historians do not always agree on a subject matter of the past. Historians diverge very widely if it is about how to apply those insights from the past to the present day. If you want to know historians view on what the reasons for war are, then a number of people will say this or that.
Samuel Huntington, for example, views that civilisations or cultures are clashing - and were for some time now. The main differentiator of a culture by this definition is its religion. Therefore, those sympathising with the Huntington school assume that most wars are caused ultimately by religion.

But leaving aside the semantics over grammar and resultant meaning of "are caused", it seems that there still is an anachronistic and eurocentric vision dominating the way this question was to be answered here.

This question is about religion in general, not about Christianity, Islam or any form of monotheistic religion? Then religion is a prime motivator for ingroup-outgroup behaviour. It represents the core of order for any civilisation against the chaos. And therefore for war in general. We do not have to reduce "religion" to "any form of some belief" to approach the problem. Otherwise, it gets trivial: "we believe that this strip of land belongs to us, we believe to need that etc"; we believe capitalism to be so much better for mankind".

Going into a structuralist or functionalist mindset we might say that sure, religion needs a base from which to perform. So a religious motive is in reality about power, and that is about power over the inhabitants, and that is over the lands on which those inhabitants live. Muslim expansion is then nothing about any form of to invent or develop a form of Islam, just land grabbing of Arab conquistadors who happened to eventually provide an ideological superstructure to justify the new rule and system of power distribution and organise a changed set of alliances between rulers and ruled.

If we ask the propagandists for war from the past, then we have to first reflect on the nature of state and religion in general. It was indistinguishable. Romans fought a bellum sacrum, Christians had Crusades against Muslims, Albigensers, Prussians; earlier Charlemagne brought Christianity by sword to the Saxons, native Americans; Muslims conquer India, Hindus fight the Muslims, English Christians wanted to mission the world with tea, opium and Christianity for the betterment of humanity. Muslims have their jihad to this day. The Incas were weakened when Christian Spanish arrived to conquer those pagans because of a civil war to determine who really was the legitimate descendant of Inti, the sun.
Mayans had their star wars, Aztecs flower wars. The latter from a modern perspective for no particular reason, other than to capture people to be used in human sacrifice. That looks as if there is nothing else but a religious motivation in those kinds of wars. Romans inquired the auspices before going to war than performed a religious ritual on the mars field, performed evocatio deorum before the enemy's city gate, then captured the city god and added it to their own pantheon. The Hittites performed exactly likewise.

Is there any war or warlike conflict in the Bible or the early Jewish history that is not entirely about religion? The taking of the promised land, the wars against Jericho, Ai, Israel & Judah, the Maccabean Revolt, the at least three full Jewish Wars against Rome?

It can very well be argued that it is universally true, that before the 'modern state' and the ideas of separation of church and state, religion was one prime cause for all the wars.

Or it is true that rulers and generals always lie. That what really was or is the cause is always something else. All marxist historians would agree to that. And Clintonistas as well. It's the economy, stupid.

The prime motivation as stated by instigators might then be "religion", although it really is about something else: the means to rule; in form of land, labour means of production. Those who follow Claude Levi-Strauss will of cause know it even better than that: all human conflict can be broken down to disagreements over the exchange of women. Let's not forget reductionist explanations like those from an offshoot of psychoanalysis. War is an illness in society and all of society's illnesses can be cured by achieving a proper orgasm. - If that sounds ridiculous, then looking for mono-causality of war, for any war, in the thousands of years for its history is likely as well.

Religion is one of the most powerful forces in human history, and its power makes itself known in ways both dramatic and intimate in our world today; unfortunately, the impact of religion is often divisive and violent. If we want to truly understand religion's ability to influence human events, we need to grasp its psychological bases, and to take a scientific approach to religious psychology means using our best theories of how the mind works.
John Teehan: "In the Name of God. The Evolutionary Origins of Religious Ethics and Violence", Wiley-Blackwell, 2010.

Martha T Nussbaum: "Democracy, Religious Violence, and India's Future",

This is one of history's ironies, that although religion has been used to justify violence, violence can also empower religion. Perhaps understandably. therefore. in the wake of secularism, and after years of wait· ing in history's wings, religion has made its reappearance as an ideology of social order in a dramatic fashion: violently. In time the violence will end, but the point will remain. Religion gives spirit to public life and provides a beacon for moral order. At the same time, it needs the temper of rationality and fair play that Enlightenment values give to civil society. Thus religious violence cannot end until some accommodation can be forged between the two-some assertion of moderation in religion's passion and some acknowledgement of religion in elevating the spiritual and moral values of public life.
Mark Juergensmeyer: "Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence", University of California Press: Berkeley, London, 2000.

To understand the role of religion in the emergence of American empire, we need to look beyond any simple opposition or interaction between “church” and “state” and see instead how the construction and corrosion of power and authority have operated across sectors of society, especially around apparently “secular” categories in which the displacements of religious logic have most effectively operated under assertions of innocence, purity, or transcendence. ose categories through which the material origins of desire have most consistently been compressed and displaced in America are age, race, and gender, as expressed in the culture in various identities associated with collectives like the nation or, now, an empire.
Jon Pahl: "Empire of Sacrifice. The Religious Origins of American Violence", New York University Press: New York, London, 2010.

Violence served to uphold the Egyptian concept of correct order, known as Ma'at. Some violence, such as sacrificial servant burial, did so by ensuring that correct social order continued in the next life. Most violence in the service of the order was aimed at the destruction of chaos, or Isfet.
Kerry Miles Muhlenstein: "Violence in the Service of Order: The Religious Framework for Sanctioned Killing in Ancient Egypt", Dissertation, University of California: Los Angeles, 2003.

Much has been written about the relationship between religion and violence, and much of what has been written is aimed at determining whether, how, and why religion causes violence. This book has a different goal. Followers of many different religions who commit violent acts seek to justify these by appealing to religion. I aim to understand how such justifications proceed; and how they do, or do not, differ from ordinary secular justifications for violence. I will show that religious justifications for violence generally exemplify the same logical forms as ordinary secular justifications for violence. I will also show that many religiously based justifications for violence are as acceptable as rigorous secular justifications for violence, provided that crucial premises, which religion supplies, are accepted. Religious believers are able to incorporate premises, grounded in the metaphysics of religious worldviews, in arguments for the conclusion that this or that violent act is justified. I examine three widely employed types of premises that appear in such arguments. These are: appeals to a state of “cosmic war,” appeals to the afterlife, and appeals to sacred values.
Steve Clarke: "The Justification of Religious Violence", Blackwell: Chichester, 2014.

The Enduring Relationship of Religion and Violence / Violence and Nonviolence at the Heart of Hindu Ethics / Buddhist Traditions and Violence / Sikh Traditions and Violence / Religion and Violence in the Jewish Traditions / Religion and Violence in Christian Traditions / Muslim Engagement with Injustice and Violence / African Traditional Religion and Violence / Religion and Violence in Pacific Island Societies / Violence in Chinese Religious Traditions
Mark Juergensmeyer & Margo Kitts & Michael K. Jerryson: "Violence and the World's Religious Traditions. An Introduction", Oxford University Press, 2017.

Other answers are justifying a straight "no", but what else is going on in the "critique of theism" mentioned by Semaphore?

The atheist philosopher Tim Crane addresses, in his book "The Meaning of Belief" (2017, Harvard University Press) claims of this kind that are made by certain atheist critics of religion (so, his subject is not any supposed consensus among historians). Spoiler alert: his view of attempts by famous atheists like Dawkins or Hitchens to analyse religion is not broadly approving. What does he say about claims that religion is wholly or mainly responsible for war and other violence? p120-122:

The violence and destruction imposed in the name of Christianity has a long history: the medieval Crusades… [4 further examples]; and we could go on, of course. Put like this, you can see why people say that the history of Europe in the second millennium AD was a history of religious violence.

Against this has to be placed the equally terrible history of large-scale nonreligious violence and cruelty. Examples easily spring to mind: the killing of the Central American natives by the conquistadors, the slave trade,… [4 further examples]. And then of course there are the other monstrous crimes of the twentieth century: the Nazi Holocaust and the mass killings by the communist regimes in China and the Soviet Union. As with religious violence, it seems all too easy to find examples.

Some writers more sympathetic to religion attempt to argue that those examples show that religion is not really the source of the world's problems, and that even so-called religious conflicts are not really religious underneath… Karen Armstrong traces the origin of human violence to the beginnings of agrarian societies and the accumulation of wealth…

The account I sketched of identification in Chapter 3 of this book indicates one other place where an explanation of of religious violence that is not specifically religous might begin. The tendency of human beings to form groups explicitly defined in opposition to others, which then seek the destruction and subordination of the other groups, is one of the characteristic features of many recognizably human societies. But facts like these do not mean that religion has no special, distinctively religious role in explaining episodes of violence… The question is rather, what is this role.

He goes on to point out that even wars that some attribute to religion are not necessarily caused by any theological content of the religion. p132:

It would be entirely incorrect, even frivolous, to suggest that the filoque clause is one of the factors that influenced the war between the Serbs and the Croats in the 1990s. And yet, if we are to look at the theological origin of the separation of the Roman and the Orthodox Churches, this would have to be mentioned (among many other details)… yet it is plain that this doctrine has nothing more to do with the war than the fact that the Serbs use the Cyrillic alphabet and the Croats use the Latin alphabet.

So, what is there to religion other than theology? Well, that's the major part of the book, and his view is that religion consists of group identification, together with the "religious impulse" toward something that transcends normal life, connected by a shared notion of what specific things are sacred. Hence, there are other ways that religion could be a factor than just theology. p134 returns to the causes of religious violence:

I mentioned three further conjectures about the sources of religious violence and conflict: (2) nontheological but distinctively religious aspects of religions; (3) the element of identification; (4) other nonreligous aspects of human psychology, society and culture.


Religion is one factor, without doubt. But is it the most fundamental or important factor? How can we go about answering this question? Is there even any need to answer it?… The extreme violence in these cases is often explicable in terms of the tendency of identification (religious or not) to exclude and discriminate against others; the violent content of some religious texts; or the struggle for power, supremacy, or autonomy among competing religious groups--in addition to human motivations and desires (for example, revenge) that are intelligible independently of anything to do with religion.

There's plenty more detail, but his gist is that what constitutes religion "causing" violence (or a war in particular) is by no means a simple or settled issue. That being the case you can't really have a simple, settled view of whether religion is uniquely culpable among other factors.

So the claim that "most wars are caused by religion" may not even be intelligible. Do most wars have religion among their causes? Are most wars caused solely by religion? What aspects of religion can be included or excluded in the assessment of whether religion caused something? You're going to do a very different analysis according to how you interpret the basic structure of the question, never mind your actual historical opinion about the causes of every war.

Historians, by and large, agree that most wars fought for resources and thus are caused by the greed for worldly or physical gain, be it land, women or money. See: "Encyclopedia of Wars," by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod.

However, in order to motivate the masses, they used religion as a motivational tool. This still works today, given how many use Christianity as a motivation to be a conservative. This is ironic, given that that religion was essentially a rebel movement, against the Roman Empire and decidedly not a conservative cause. Therefore, while religion itself might not cause wars, it does acerbate them because religion is used as a justification. Joan of Arc, the Civil War, Colonial wars would not have had this effect had it not been for the religious motivation. And it's doubtful that Joan of Arc would have gone to Germany or Africa to fight perfidious Albion.

As a side effect of triumphantly decrying that religion is NOT a cause of wars, some play the fake victim card: "Oh, us poor Christians, who are oppressed by the evil atheist hordes."

I have never read such a theory, by any historian. This is likely because few real historians have ever made the claim.

I think we can easily see why that is: To be "most" it must be over 50%.

But not all religions are warlike. And not all warlike religions can be used to justify/launch wars.

Buddhism, Hinduism, Taoism are non-warlike religions. And they can most certainly not be used to justify wars (the god of those religions can't be owned by a group of followers. And those gods never made any promises, and never demanded the followers to find new followers)

Shintoism is warlike religion but it can't be used to start wars. because it isn't a god-owning religion.

Mesoamerican religions are not overly well understood, but given they didn't launch a holy war against the foreign invaders it seems pretty clear that holy war wasn't their thing. Native americans also don't have a war like religion.

Right there, that's more than 1/2 the world, and probably more than 1/2 the wars ever fought.

Then there are a few religions that are both warlike and war justifying. This is made possible by a custom made god that institutionalizes racism, makes land grant, and gives a religious mandate to spread the truth of 'love', 'peace', 'hope', 'chosen' and 'faith' to anyone lacking in 'love', 'peace', 'hope', 'chosen' and 'faith'. And if the infidels, heathens, nonbelievers, etc. refuse to accept the truth, the followers are encouraged to convert them, by force if necessary.

But even then, not too many of the wars by the adherents were actually fought in the name of those religions. And most of the biggest ones were all religion free. Napoleonic War, Franco-Prussian War, WWI, WWII, the 100 years war, the 30 years war, the crimean war, etc. That doesn't mean each side didn't bring their holy men with them to war, to ask their god to smite down those other guys in the opposing army.

So I would say a tiny percentage of wars are caused by religion, the rest are caused by kings playing the game of thrones.

Is religion the cause of most wars?

To be sure, many conflicts throughout history have been ostensibly for religious reasons, with many different religions involved. For example, in Christianity, there occurred (just to name a few):

• The Crusades — A series of campaigns from the 11th to the 13th centuries with the stated goal of reconquering the Holy Land from Muslim invaders and coming to the aid of the Byzantine Empire

• The French Wars of Religion — A succession of wars in France during the 16th century between Catholics and the Protestant Huguenots

• The Thirty Years' War — Another war between Catholics and Protestants during the 17th century in what is now Germany

This list is by no means exhaustive. In addition to this, one could add the Taiping Rebellion and the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Christianity has certainly been a factor in many conflicts throughout its 2,000-year history.

In Islam, we see the concept of jihad, or “holy war.” The word jihad literally means “struggle,” but the concept has been used to describe warfare in the expansion and defense of Islamic territory. The almost continual warfare in the Middle East over the past half century certainly has contributed to the idea that religion is the cause of many wars. The September 11 attacks on the United States has been seen as a jihad against the “Great Satan” America, which in Muslim eyes is almost synonymous with Christianity. In Judaism, the wars of conquest chronicled in the OT (in particular the book of Joshua) at the command of God, conquered the Promised Land.

The point should be obvious that religion has certainly played a part in much of the warfare in human history. However, does this prove the point made by the critics of religion that religion itself is the cause of war? The answer is “yes” and “no.” “Yes” in the sense that as a secondary cause, religion, on the surface at least, has been the impetus behind much conflict. However, the answer is “no” in the sense that religion is never the primary cause of war.

To demonstrate this point, let’s look at the 20th century. By all accounts, the 20th century was one of the bloodiest centuries in human history. Two major world wars, which had nothing at all to do with religion, the Jewish Holocaust, and the Communist Revolutions in Russia, China, Southeast Asia and Cuba, have accounted for anywhere between 50-70 million deaths (some estimate upwards to 100 million). The one thing these conflicts and genocides have in common is that fact that they were ideological, not religious, in nature. We could easily make the case that more people have died throughout human history due to ideology than to religion. Communist ideology necessitates ruling over others. Nazi ideology necessitates elimination of “inferior” races. These two ideologies alone account for the death of millions, and religion had nothing to do with it. In fact, communism is by definition an atheistic ideology.

Religion and ideology are both secondary causes for war. However, the primary cause for all war is sin. Consider the following Scriptures:

“What causes fights and quarrels among you? Don’t they come from your desires that battle within you? You want something but don’t get it. You kill and covet, but you cannot have what you want. You quarrel and fight. You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures” (James 4:1-3).

“For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander” (Matthew 15:19).

“The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?” (Jeremiah 17:9).

“The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time” (Genesis 6:5).

What is the testimony of Scripture as to the primary cause of war? It’s our wicked hearts. Religion and ideology are simply the means through which we exercise the wickedness in our hearts. To think, as many outspoken atheists do, that if we can somehow remove our “impractical need for religion,” we can somehow create a more peaceful society, is to have a mistaken view of human nature. The testimony of human history is that if we remove religion, something else will take its place, and that something is never positive. The reality is that true religion keeps fallen humanity in check without it, wickedness and sin would reign supreme.

Even with the influence of true religion, Christianity, we will never see peace in this current age. There is never a day without some conflict somewhere in the world. The only cure for war is the Prince of Peace, Jesus Christ! When Christ returns as He has promised, He will close this current age and establish eternal peace:

“He shall judge between the nations, and shall decide disputes for many peoples and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war anymore” (Isaiah 2:4).

Religion and War: Are Most Wars the Result of Religious Belief? by Rich Deem

A slew of books by "evangelical" atheists have claimed that most of the world's suffering (including most wars) are the direct result of religious differences and the discord that it fosters. Such statements are seldom backed up by real evidence (other than citing a handful of wars that seem to be the result of religious differences). 1 Does religion really lead to war?


People can be pretty passionate about their religious beliefs. So, it is not surprising that at least a few famous wars have resulted from disagreements about religion. However, is it true what Sam Harris says that our tendency to slaughter each other "generally have their roots in religion?" 2

History of human wars

The history of human warfare goes back to the beginning of recorded history (and, no doubt, well before that). A recent comprehensive compilation of the history of human warfare, Encyclopedia of Wars by Charles Phillips and Alan Axelrod documents 1763 wars, of which 123 have been classified to involve a religious conflict. 3 So, what atheists have considered to be "most" really amounts to less than 7% of all wars. It is interesting to note that 66 of these wars (more than 50%) involved Islam, which did not even exist as a religion for the first 3,000 years of recorded human warfare.

U.S.A. - the most religious country

Since the United States of America is and has been one of the most religious countries over the last 200+ years, if the atheists are correct, the U.S.A. should have been involved in the largest number of religious wars of any other nation. In fact, the United States has been involved in 17 wars, only one of which (the current "War on Terror") has any religious entanglement. The number of Americans who have died as the result of religious wars is 14.2/year, which is less than the number of people who die yearly from dog bites. 4


The atheist claim that religion is the cause of most wars is shown to be false. The history of human warfare shows that less than 7% of all wars have religious causes. If atheists are correct, the most religious industrial nation, the United States of America, should be involved in more religious wars than any other country. However, only the "War on Terror," among all 17 American wars, involves a religious component.

Anticolonialism and Political Correctness

In short, an aging collection of anticolonial sentiments has merged with mild political correctness (opposition to violence, skepticism toward Western religious traditions and practices, concern for social issues reflecting race, gender, class, and ethnicity) to dominate current historiography of the Crusades.

This is prominently reflected in the film media, most notably in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves and Terry Jones's History of the Crusades.1 It is also somewhat out of touch with Generation X. My students prefer Errol Flynn's Robin Hood to Costner's and enjoy Men in Tights. Jones's much better but strongly antiwar BBC series praised Baibar's use of slave troops against the crusaders. What would he have said if crusaders had adopted that practice? On the whole, Jones is far the better scholar (and arguably the better actor), but he remains a child of the sixties&mdashlike so many of us who are active teachers today.2

Not that political correctness is completely wrong by one definition, it is simply good manners taken to extremes. Moreover, it has deep roots in our religious and moral heritage. The Crusades, however, are unlike other areas of history, especially American history, where differing interpretations relevant to contemporary life can be easily found to present to students. Is there a widely distributed right-wing interpretation of the Crusades? Certainly not in the high-quality institutions of higher education on the American continent certainly not in meetings of the professional associations of medievalists. Not that we need extremist views, but Western Civ and World Civ instructors (ever more often graduate students or adjunct faculty) often have only a scanty background in medieval studies and, although the Web provides many sites on the Crusades that reflect a wide variety of interpretations, we may expect that for a while yet most instructors will continue to rely heavily on textbooks.

Not that comparing the Crusades to European expansion in early modern times or 19th-century colonialism was ever fully satisfactory, but the concept did fit well with the historians' 20th-century worldview until quite recently, and even the worldview of those who disagreed strongly with Marxist theories about colonialism and neocolonialism. It had the advantage of retaining some connection with the previous generation's emphasis on the struggle between church and state while turning upside down those historians' beliefs as to what the holy wars were all about. Medieval colonialism was once a new and exciting idea, even a provocative one moreover, it supported the perceived duty of socially involved scholars to challenge or even overturn some of the foundational beliefs of traditional Western society. By such reasoning historians could use the Crusades as another example of Western civilization run amok they could even explain the Vietnam War. Since modern historians of the Crusades were better trained than their predecessors and had access to more materials, they could write better histories that made it all the easier to dismiss the work of past generations as inconsequential.

Overlooked in this was the awkward fact that until the 1700s there was a desperate struggle between Christendom and Islam. As the West gained the upper hand in the 1800s, the way was opened for Romanticists to emphasize individual heroism&mdashWalter Scott's Richard and Saladin&mdashand exotic climes and self-sacrificing idealism&mdashKipling's India and the White Man's Burden. Without doubt, 19th-century imperialism benefited from the widespread belief that European civilization must be defended and extended. European states cooperated in the war against slavery in Africa and Asia, against banditry in Central America, and in defense of the rights of Christian minorities and Christian missionaries in China and Africa. Perhaps no single episode pulled all these themes together as well as "Chinese" Gordon's doomed enterprise at Khartoum. The British public was divided over the wisdom of becoming involved in the Sudanese wars, but within a few years Britain's traditional pro-Turkish policy was reversed, and in 1918 the public celebrated Allenby's capture of Jerusalem, a feat that had eluded even Richard the Lionheart.

Once the French and British divided up the Near East between them (with a few scraps for Italy), the parallels of this undeniably crass imperialism to the medieval crusader states seemed very clear to interwar scholars. Add to this the rise of pacifism, socialism, and communism, all of which were popular in the universities of the thirties, and it was inevitable that a message would go out that the elimination of Western colonialism (later, neocolonialism) was a necessary step toward the Future's triumph over the Past. One did not have to be a Leninist to see the germ of truth in this argument and its effectiveness in getting a student audience's attention. In the sixties a rebirth of pacifism, the nuclear stalemate, and Vietnam caused many to question whether any war was ever worth fighting. The last moral credibility of the Crusades vanished. The Cold War persuaded some that calls to serve a higher purpose were only pretexts, and others began to believe that even the best of intentions will go astray.

Why Do Religions Teach Love and Yet Cause So Much War?

An integral approach to spirituality takes that assertion very seriously. Yet it also accepts the idea that religion in some sense contains deep and abiding truths about reality, possibly about Ultimate Reality itself. It is one of the distinctive aspects of the integral approach that it claims to be able to reconcile those two astonishingly contradictory items.

Item #1: Religion causes more human war and misery than any other manmade cause.

Item #2: Religion is about Ultimate Reality.

The only way to reconcile those two items is to recognize that, at the very least, religion contains two very different aspects. One clearly divides humans the other might be able to unite them. "Peace on earth, good will toward men" obviously rests upon differentiating those two aspects and placing each of them in a larger context. Exactly how to do so is one of the goals of the integral approach. But one thing is certain and historically undeniable: if we cannot do so, religion will continue to be the death of humans until humans have the death of God.

It is common, of course, to say that all religions-or certainly most of them-teach some sort of brotherly/sisterly love, that all major religions have some version of the Golden Rule, and that religions therefore have acted to introduce love and compassion into the world. Once again, however, that flies in the face of historical fact: for every year of peace in humankind's history there have been fourteen years of war, 90% of which have been fought either because of, or under the banner of, God by whatever name. (More on this at Ken Wilber Online.)

Again, it seems as if there are almost two different kinds of religion, one of which brutally divides, and one of which unites (or can unite). How do we tell them apart, and how might we begin to switch allegiance from the former to the latter? If you believe in God and yet don't have an answer to that question, you are inadvertently contributing to the wars of tomorrow, yes? And it won't quite do to say that the world would be peaceful if everybody accepted my personal savior or my path to Spirit. Surely that is the cause, not the cure, of the problem, yes?

In my previous Beliefnet column ("What All Religions Have in Common"), I introduced the idea of an "integral approach" to spirituality. Most Beliefnet columns are self-contained pieces few of them require any familiarity with earlier or later columns. The integral approach has about a half-dozen major components, however, each of which needs to be understood in order for the approach itself to make sense. This means that my column will be a series of installments, each of which builds upon its predecessors.

Does this sound interesting to you? If so, then let's begin.

In my previous column I didn't spell out, or really indicate what an "integral approach" to spirituality would include. Many readers naturally assumed that this was simply another version of "universalism"-the belief that there are certain truths contained in all the world's religions. But the integral approach emphatically does not make that suggestion. Other readers maintained that I was offering a version of the "perennial philosophy" espoused by Aldous Huxley or Huston Smith. Does the integral approach believe that all religions are saying essentially the same thing from a different perspective? No, almost the opposite.

Yet the integral approach does claim to be able to "unite," in some sense, the world's great spiritual traditions, which is what has caused much of the interest in this approach. If humanity is ever to cease its swarming hostilities and be united in one family, without squashing the significant and important differences among us, then something like an integral approach seems the only way. Until that time, religions will continue to brutally divide humanity, as they have throughout history, and not unite, as they must if they are to be a help, not a hindrance, to tomorrow's existence.

So how can we describe the integral approach in simple terms? It's clearly going to be a bit of a new idea, so bear with me. We might start by calling it a "content-free cross-culturalism." Gulp. That's simple?

"Content-free" refers to the fact that virtually all previous approaches at unification have attempted to find some sort of unity on the level of actual content (whereas the integral approach does not). For example, most of the world's great religions have some version of the Golden Rule, and most universalists use those types of common elements to find their unity in the world's religions.

The integral approach does none of that. Or rather, all such similarities in content are looked upon as quite secondary, even trivial. This is why we call the core of the integral approach "content-free." It finds its similarities in certain patterns of content, not in the content itself.

Here's a simple example. Notice that all the world's mature languages contain first-, second-, and third-person pronouns. First person means the person who is speaking (I, me, we) second person means the person spoken to (you, thou) and third person means the person or thing being spoken about (him, her, it). So if you are talking to me about your new car, you are the first person, I am the second person, and the car is the third person.

These pronouns actually represent three perspectives that human beings can take when they talk about the world or attempt to know the world. For example, I have my first-person impressions of my new car ("I like it!"). I can ask you, a second person, what you think about it ("I like it, too!"). You and I are now a "we" (a first-person plural) and we both agree, the car ("it") is great!

Although there are obviously countless combinations here, it's sometimes useful to summarize these three major perspectives as I/me, you/we, and he/her/it-or simply "I," "we," and "it." So what? Well, the fact that every major language contains these three types of pronouns means that we have a set of "meta-universals" here, or something that we find in all major cultures.

Notice that these universals-I, we, and it-do not themselves have any content. To say that all languages have a first-person pronoun ("I" or "me") is not to say anything about that person at all. It is not to say that this person is named Martha, or this person is spiritual, or this person is made of carbon and water molecules, or this person contains Jungian archetypes, or anything like that at all.

It's much, much deeper than that. To say that all human beings recognize a first-, second-, and third-person perspective is to say that those perspectives-but not necessarily any of their contents-are universally available to all normal humans. It's sort of like saying that all human beings contain two kidneys, two lungs, and one liver. But it says nothing about what you actually do with your kidneys or lungs or liver. In other words, to say that you have a first-person perspective on what you are reading right now-you are a first-person "I" who is reading this column-is to say nothing about what you actually think about what you are reading. Maybe you like it, maybe you don't. All I am saying is that you definitely have available to you a first-person perspective, and you know that you do.

Now this begins to get interesting, because we have started to find a series of things that are universal, but that themselves have no particular content. They are "meta-universals." Or, as we were saying, "content-free cross-cultural" patterns. Notice that we never find a perspective running around all by itself, dangling in midair, completely divorced from some sort of content, only that the perspectives themselves are not merely culture-bound or merely relative, appearing in some cultures but not in others. So I am not saying that "content-free" means culture-free rather, perspectives-such as I, we, and it-are wedded to particular cultures but not reducible to them.

The fascinating part is that these three perspectives might actually give rise to art, morals, and science. Or the Beautiful, the Good, and the True: the Beauty that is in the eye (or the "I") of the beholder the Good or moral actions that can exist between you and me as a "we" and the objective Truth about third-person objects (or "its") that you and I might discover: hence, art ("I"), morals ("we"), and science ("it").

The Good, the True, and the Beautiful. And that might lead us to.. Well, I am definitely getting ahead of the story. Please tune in again next month for the continuing tale of a spirituality gone integral, a God found whole in the midst of the fractured postmodern world..

History of War

This strand of our one-year MSt or two-year MPhil in History is the equivalent of a free-standing Master’s in the history of war. For more details on the organisation of these programmes, click the links above.

The history of war is currently a major field of research. The narrow approaches of more traditionally defined military history have been replaced by a broader agenda which seeks to understand conflict as part of the wider human past. The changing character of war has contributed to this, shifting attention away from the previous preoccupation with conventional wars between states, to see how armed struggles have been waged by a variety of different actors with hugely varying impacts on society, economy, culture and environment, as well as differing political implications. This programme will provide students with the structured intellectual environment and academic framework to study war across the sweep of human history. It will serve either to complete their university education in history, or as a foundation to further doctoral study.

Course Organisation

Alongside the Theory and Methods and Skills courses, students spend their first term studying Sources and Historiography. This will embed core graduate skills and subject-specific historiography and methodology within an exploration of the organisation, conduct, impact and broader context of warfare from the ancient world to the present day. A key goal will be to encourage students to recognise how war in human history can only be fully understood when a study of the more ‘technical’ aspects are combined with a fuller appreciation of the broader historical context of past conflicts. The course will explore the relationship between war’s changing character and wider historical change. Other key topics will include aspects such as warfare in contemporary memory, cultural perceptions of war, warfare and gender, ethics and genocide, war and empire, supply and logistics, war and ideology, combat, mobilisation etc.

In the second term, students take one of a wide portfolio of Option courses. Those particularly relevant to the history of war typically include:

State and Society in Early Modern Europe

In recent decades the political history of early modern Europe has re-invented itself in dialogue with social, economic and cultural history. Analyses of state formation and political culture have aspired to replace biographies of statesmen, narratives of party struggle and genealogies of institutional development. This course examines a series of themes in the development of early modern states to test models of political change on a range of societies from the British Isles to Eastern Europe. It aims to equip those interested in reformations, counter-reformations, rebellions, courts, parliaments, towns, nobles, peasants and witches – and in statesmen, factions and institutions – with the ideas and comparators needed to frame a sophisticated research project in their chosen field. Class topics will include:

  • the military-fiscal state
  • clientage and faction
  • confessionalisation
  • justice and the law
  • government, economy and social change
  • household order
  • communication, propaganda and magnificence
  • communication, representation and revolt

Europe in the Twentieth Century

This option approaches the history of 20th-century Europe by testing the concepts of national, transnational and international history and their possible interactions. It will not compare the history of individual European countries, but rather explore how notions of regional, national, transnational and international history have been used to organize and interpret the history of 20th-century Europe. While the course is firmly rooted in the empirical history of Europe and its relationships to the wider world in this period, it will foreground questions of interpretation. These will include exploring the scope and limits of approaches to political, economic and social history based on concepts of the national, transnational and international, and assessing the advantages and disadvantages of destabilizing the dominant conventions for writing the history of Europe in the last century. The course is intended both for students who want an introduction to this history and for those who want an opportunity to extend and reconsider their existing knowledge of it. Among topics that may be covered are:

  • The History of a Transnational Continent
  • Political Geographies: Regions, Nations, Empires
  • Internationalism and Rights
  • Varieties of Political Representation
  • Consumption Regimes
  • Boundaries and Identities
  • Environmentalism and Transnationalism
  • International wars and Civil Wars

War in the Modern World

This course is an introduction to the history of warfare since ca.1780, taking the emergence of revolutionary warfare and the military divergence between Europe and the rest of the world as its starting-point. The course is organised both thematically and chronologically. Students will be asked to assess whether the turn of the 18th and 19th centuries saw the emergence of a new epoch in warfare, one marked within Europe by the emergence of mass conscript armies, and beyond it by a recent but rapid European military divergence from the rest of the world. They will explore the topics of war and empire – wars of colonial conquest in Asia, America and Africa in the 18th and 19th centuries – and be encouraged to explore whether this was enabled or facilitated by the developments of the military revolution. They will explore the distinctive forms and functions of warfare which emerged in the 19th century, notably the relationships between war and the various nation-building projects at the time, and the racialized violence of colonial warfare. ‘War and Technology’ will look at how certain types of technological advance – notably rifled weaponry, steam-powered, iron-hulled armoured warships, and later air power and land armour – transformed the way wars were fought, and the international relations surrounding them, while also exploring the role of medical science in warfare. The topic of Life, Death and the experience of war will ask if historians can recreate the subjective experience of the battlefield, and the medical and psychological consequences of warfare. ‘Total War’ will explore the total mobilisation of societies to meet the demands of 20th-century warfare, focusing on the First and Second World Wars.

Warfare and the Military in African History

*Please note, this option is taught over 8 weeks*

This course will explore the role of warfare and the military in the course of Africa’s history, from the fourteenth to the early twentieth century. It aims to place the organisation of armed conflict and the evolution of military culture at the centre of the analysis, and posits the need for a long-term understanding of both. In approaching the topic from a longue durée perspective, the paper will explore the extent to which organised violence in Africa has deep historical roots. Students will therefore be encouraged to consider the key drivers of Africa’s developmental trajectory, and to think of warfare in constructive as well as destructive terms.

The course will combine broad themes as well as specific case studies from across the continent. It will explore the manner in which warfare has shaped Africa in socio-economic, political and cultural terms, and specifically the role which warfare has played in the emergence of a range of state and non-state systems, and in the development of military cultures, across the continent. Key topics for study will include changing social formations the growth of identities based on violence and militarism the relationship between military and political administration the economics of African war and the range of technologies developed and employed across the continent. Throughout, the course will consider the global context within which conflict in Africa occurs, exploring external factors whether in the form of commercial linkages or imperial intrusions.

The Pursuit of Peace: A Hundred Year History

The narrative of the period between 1890 and 1990 is a history dominated by wars – total, colonial, civil, cold – waged on the local, national, regional and global scale. The course explores institutions and individuals who strove to find practical ideas to the seemingly endless threat of war in the modern world. It focuses on peace societies and international and regional institutions, such as the League of Nations, the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, the EU and NAFTA. The course highlights the importance of actors often excluded from an active role in the study of international relations: young people, women, children, war veterans, scientists, layers offering a bottom up – or possibly sideways - approach to the history of peace. The course gives particular prominence to economic and social issues, and also takes a global approach to the history of peace – exploring why certain spaces and territories were the deemed especially suited to a ‘security’ approach to peace by international agency. The course literature connects what have become two discrete fields of historical writing. The first is ‘diplomatic’ history focused on the origins of the two world wars and the Cold War that largely presents states as marbles bashing in a bag. The second, the self-declared ‘new’ international history, focuses on the history of rights, and processes of transnational exchange and globalisation in relation to questions of race, gender and class. Bringing these two literatures together, drawing on key primary texts and secondary studies, the course will seeks to provide new tools to think about the relationship between war and peace in the international history of 1890-1990 in ways that may enable us to better interpret the 21st century.

Manpower and State Power

This course examines manpower as both a physical and political concept during the early modern period. It traces how bodies changed alongside the development of methods to assess, discipline, and cultivate their vitality, linking the development of scientific methodologies to imperial and state formation. The course illuminates the relationship between bodies and state power in early modern Europe, showing the dynamism and flexibility of both.

This is accomplished through a comparison of approaches to manpower from a variety of historical disciplines: anthropometrics economics warfare medicine science and technology state and imperial formation. Course readings examine how bodies changed and grew over the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, as well as how they were measured, regulated, and exploited.

Methods of assessing population strength, as well as debates over medicine’s role in population growth, will be used as tangible examples of early modern political theory and practice. Readings, both primary and secondary, engage with theory on the modern state, to place military and medical history within the broader context of the formation of early modern states and empires, and to evaluate assumptions about scientific methodologies and political authority.

Medicine and Modern Warfare

The main aim of this course is to illuminate some of the more important aspects of the relationship between medicine and warfare in the period from the early nineteenth century through to the twentieth century. The over-arching theme of the course is the role of medicine in the emergence of ‘modern’ forms of warfare, particularly the contribution that medicine made to manpower economy, discipline and morale. Examination of these themes will enable students to comment critically on the work of theorists of modernity such as Max Weber and Michel Foucault and to place military-medical developments in the context of recent historical scholarship on the ‘military revolution’ and the growth of modern states.

The course also examines the relationship between war and medical innovation and between war and welfare provisions. Study of these subjects will entail critical evaluation of the arguments advanced by historians such as Jay Winter and Roger Cooter, and of relevant social and cultural theory.

Throughout the degree, students work towards a dissertation. Recent topics have included:

  • War and technological innovation
  • Operational history in broader context
  • Military-civil relations
  • Social and cultural history of armed forces
  • Counter-insurgency and other forms of ‘small war’
  • Resource-mobilisation, logistics and the socio-economic impact of war
  • War and medicine

Faculty and Research Culture

The study of the History of War at Oxford is characterised by temporal and spatial breadth, as well as the multiplicity of approaches to understanding past conflicts. Chronologically, current research ranges from ancient world to the late twentieth century, with particular strengths in early modernity and the period after the mid-nineteenth century. The main areas for the middle ages are Byzantine and crusader warfare. Geographically, Europe is the primary field with particular strengths for German, French, Belgian, Spanish, British and Irish history. Warfare in early twentieth-century China and India are also major fields, as well as nomadic warfare, and colonial and post-colonial conflicts especially those in New Zealand, Africa and the Middle East. Important thematic interests include mobilising resources for war, military institutions, naval warfare, military-civil relations, war and gender, war and humanitarianism, disease, imperialism and war. The history of war is connected to other historical fields and to other disciplines through the research of many scholars who study the wider impact of conflict, as well as how war and violence are perceived and remembered. Particular areas of interest include the environmental impact of twentieth-century conflict, war and ideas of nation-building, and the relationship between the changing character of war and scientific and technological development. The majority of staff pursuing this research are based in the Faculty of History, including the related Wellcome Unit for the History of Medicine. Others are in the Department for Continuing Education and the Department for International Development. There are strong collaborative links through TORCH, notably the Globalising and Localising the First World War project, as well as with the Changing Character of War programme based in Pembroke College.


One school of theorists has postulated that the major causes of war can be found in man’s psychological nature. Such psychological approaches range from very general, often merely intuitive assertions regarding human nature to complex analyses utilizing the concepts and techniques of modern psychology. The former category includes a wide range of ethical and philosophical teaching and insights, including the works of such figures as St. Augustine and the 17th-century Dutch philosopher Benedict de Spinoza.

Modern writers utilizing psychological approaches emphasize the significance of psychological maladjustments or complexes and of false, stereotyped images held by decision makers of other countries and their leaders. Some psychologists posit an innate aggressiveness in man. Others concentrate upon public opinion and its influence, particularly in times of tension. Others stress the importance of decision makers and the need for their careful selection and training. Most believe that an improved social adjustment of individuals would decrease frustration, insecurity, and fear and would reduce the likelihood of war. All of them believe in the importance of research and education. Still, the limitations of such approaches derive from their very generality. Also, whether the psychological premises are optimistic or pessimistic about the nature of man, one cannot ignore the impact upon human behaviour of social and political institutions that give man the opportunities to exercise his good or evil propensities and to impose restraints upon him.

Wars of Religion

Our editors will review what you’ve submitted and determine whether to revise the article.

Wars of Religion, (1562–98) conflicts in France between Protestants and Roman Catholics. The spread of French Calvinism persuaded the French ruler Catherine de Médicis to show more tolerance for the Huguenots, which angered the powerful Roman Catholic Guise family. Its partisans massacred a Huguenot congregation at Vassy (1562), causing an uprising in the provinces. Many inconclusive skirmishes followed, and compromises were reached in 1563, 1568, and 1570. After the murder of the Huguenot leader Gaspard II de Coligny in the Massacre of Saint Bartholomew’s Day (1572), the civil war resumed. A peace compromise in 1576 allowed the Huguenots freedom of worship. An uneasy peace existed until 1584, when the Huguenot leader Henry of Navarre (later Henry IV) became heir to the French throne. This led to the War of the Three Henrys and later brought Spain to the aid the Roman Catholics. The wars ended with Henry’s embrace of Roman Catholicism and the religious toleration of the Huguenots guaranteed by the Edict of Nantes (1598).

America Will Never Move Beyond the Culture Wars

Religious freedom bills in Indiana and Arkansas cause a “national uproar.” Supporters of gay rights say they “legislate hate.” The Pro-Life Susan B. Anthony List secures pledges from more than a dozen of the likely Republican presidential candidates to ban abortions after 20 weeks of pregnancy. Pro-choice advocates call the 20-week campaign “deceptive, irresponsible, and dangerous,” yet another provocation in the ongoing GOP “war against women.” A new curriculum framework for teaching Advanced Placement U.S. history becomes “the target of intense criticism around the country.” Conservative critics claim it presents “a radically revisionist view” of “America as a nation of oppressors and exploiters.”

If historian Andrew Hartman is right, all of these recent developments are merely “lingering residues” of the culture wars of the 1980s and 1990s, leftover skirmishes from a battle that has officially ended.The culture wars “are history,” Hartman emphatically declares in the conclusion to his lively new book, A War for the Soul of America. “The logic of the culture wars has been exhausted. The metaphor has run its course.”

Hartman’s conclusion is especially jarring given that he does such a fine job demonstrating that the culture wars were much more than “one angry shouting match after another.” There were “real and compelling” issues behind the incendiary debates about hot button issues such as abortion, affirmative action, and homosexuality as well as evolution, censorship, and the Western canon. Indeed culture wars debates, as Hartman writes, were ultimately about the very “idea of America” itself.

Who and what constituted America was up for grabs in the 1960s. This was the decade that planted the seeds of the culture wars, according to Hartman, through a frontal assault on what he calls “normative America.” Before the ‘60s, the irreverent and unsettling sporadic messages of radical artists, academics, and politicians had largely failed to reach normative Americans, who continued to believe in God, hard work, American exceptionalism (“their nation was the best in human history”), and “traditional” gender roles. During the ‘60s, however, conflict, fracture, and dissent were unavoidable. Cultural disruption was no longer the exclusive province of little magazines, the occasional seminar room, and fringe political parties. With civil rights, anti-war protests, and the flowering counterculture, it was broadcast into American living rooms everyday on the nightly news.

The New Left was the most significant force in terms of reshaping American culture. This “loose configuration” of the antiwar, Black Power, feminist, and gay liberation movements may not have achieved their “utopian political dreams” but they did manage to change hearts and minds, fostering skepticism about the government, drawing attention to deeply entrenched racism, and challenging conventional ideas about gender and sexuality. For many on the Right, this cultural shift was an “abomination,” a loud and public denunciation of their most cherished values and beliefs. Hartman’s overarching argument is that the culture wars should be seen as a right-wing backlash against the ‘60s “cultural revolution.”

The 1970s, in Hartman’s view, were a transitional decade, providing an elaborate training ground for the culture wars to come. This decade saw the rise of neoconservatives, that argumentative faction led primarily by Jewish New York intellectuals—onetime liberals who had been “mugged by reality,” in Irving Kristol’s memorable phrase. In the pages of Commentary, Encounter, and Public Interest, the likes of Kristol, Gertrude Himmelfarb, and Norman Podhoretz formulated a neoconservative platform that attacked affirmative action, the welfare state, and identity politics while promoting colorblind social policies, personal responsibility, and the “fundamental goodness” of America and its institutions.

As neoconservatives “tapped into a powerful American political language that separated those who earn their way from those who do not,” Christian evangelicals began to assert themselves more forcefully in the political arena. More than any other group, according to Hartman, evangelicals had been sent reeling by the '60s, finding themselves “scarred by the acids of modernity.” From his perch at the Thomas Road Baptist Church in Lynchburg, Virginia, Jerry Falwell preached a powerful “family values” gospel, warning that a “holy war” was on for the very survival of the “traditional” family. When Falwell founded his Moral Majority organization in 1979, it enrolled 2.5 million members within its first year.

The “traditional” family was also a fundamental concern of the conservative Catholic Phyllis Schlafly, who spearheaded the anti-Equal Rights Amendment movement, maintaining that if men and women had equal rights, fathers would have no special legal obligation to provide for mothers and their children. Schlafly, as Hartman emphasizes, successfully “tarred feminists as enemies of motherhood,” renegades who saw domesticity as a form of slavery. Passed by Congress in 1972, the ERA ultimately fell just shy of the 38 states needed for ratification, due in no small measure to Schlafly’s STOP ERA campaign. In a 1973 debate, iconic second wave feminist Betty Friedan told Schlafly: “I would like to burn you at the stake. I consider you a traitor to your sex, an Aunt Tom.”

We should pay attention to Friedan’s remarks for three reasons, Hartman says: First, they anticipated the nasty spirit of future culture wars exchanges. Second, they invoked religion, gender, and race, three of the most bitterly contested fronts in the culture wars conflict. And third, they show that behind the high drama were high stakes, from the demotion of the proverbial male breadwinner to disagreements about the very nature of social progress.

As a guide to the late twentieth century culture wars, Hartman is unrivalled. War for the Soul of America features incisive portraits of individual players in the culture wars dramas, ranging from legal scholar Robert Bork and Focus on the Family founder James Dobson, to dissident feminist Camille Paglia and artist Andres Serrano of “Piss Christ” fame cogent discussions of the culture wars' major texts, including The Closing of the American Mind (Allan Bloom, 1987), Gender Trouble (Judith Butler, 1990) and The Bell Curve (Richard Herrnstein and Charles Murray, 1994) and revealing presentations of the signal culture wars controversies, including the 1985 “porn rock” congressional hearings spurred on by Tipper Gore, the heady controversy about changes to Stanford University’s Western Civilization curriculum (students marched and chanted, “Hey, hey, ho, ho, Western culture’s got to go”), and the early 1990s dust up about the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum’s allegedly offensive-to-veterans curating plans for the display of the Enola Gay Hiroshima bomber plane. If you lived through the ‘80s and ‘90s and paid attention to the news (or were anywhere near a college campus), reading Hartman sometimes feels like debriefing with friends after a raucous night out, an experience punctuated by laughter, head-scratching, and moments of regret for the excesses involved.

There are no more genuine culture wars firestorms like those outlined above today, according to Hartman, only passing flare-ups that are more “farcical” than “poignant.” By the turn of the twenty-first century, Hartman says, memories of an “Ozzie and Harriet” normative America had faded. “A growing majority of Americans now accept and even embrace” the cultural change wrought by the ‘60s. This argument is attractive, especially if you lean left. New peoples—“blacks and other racial minorities, immigrants from strange lands, Catholics, Jews and other non-Christians, atheists, women, gays, lesbians, the disabled”—laid claim to the nation, “met with fierce resistance” but eventually triumphed. The culture fractured but was then reconstituted into a more diverse and inclusive whole.

This explanation is neat but ultimately unsatisfying. In asserting that the culture wars were a temporary “adjustment period,” Hartman overlooks the extent to which they have been institutionalized into the very fabric of American society. Fox News, for example, has provided a non-stop, 24-hour televised arena for the culture wars ever since 1996. (MSNBC, on the Left, serves a similar, if less influential and pugnacious, function.) Take note also of our political primary system, in which the extremes of both parties have an outsize role in selecting candidates and shaping political platforms. Hartman points to changing attitudes about homosexuality to support his contention that the culture wars are finished. Homophobia is on the wane and public support for gay marriage is up, dramatically so. Hartman is undeniably right that homosexuality is no longer such a divisive subject in our national conversations but it is worth making a distinction between culture wars issues that may be blunted and others that will always be sharp.

Most important of all, arguably, are the controversies that linger in public education. We have a “radically decentralized” educational system, as historian David Labaree has pointed out, with some 14,000 individual school districts interacting with the local, state, and federal governments. Under these conditions, the capacity for passionate disagreement about what to teach the 50 million children and adolescents enrolled in public school is enormous. As I write, the Louisiana Senate Education Committee is considering the repeal of the 2008 Louisiana Science Education Act signed by Governor Bobby Jindal, which “gives cover to teach intelligent design [and] creationism.” Jindal, who majored in biology at Brown University, said, “I don't want any facts or theories or explanations to be withheld from [students] because of political correctness. Last week, after “months of rancorous debate,” the Acalanes Union High School District school board in Lafayette, California, reaffirmed its commitment to working with Planned Parenthood educators to deliver its high school sex education curriculum. The school board was not swayed by the arguments made by the NOISE (No to Irresponsible Sex Education) Coalition that Planned Parenthood is a “business that sells sex.” Two months ago, the Oklahoma legislature introduced a bill that would ban funding for AP U.S. History courses in light of the College Board’s new curriculum guidelines. The bill’s author, Republican Representative Dan Fisher, said the redesigned framework emphasized “what is bad about America,” while neglecting “American exceptionalism.” Schools are much more than conveyor belts for academic content—they are also critical sites for the transmission of beliefs and values from one generation to the next. Curriculum disputes in the culture wars idiom are not going away anytime soon.

Is American history a triumph or a tragedy? Should it be celebrated or critiqued? There is still a fierce and irreconcilable tension between the Howard Zinn expose exploitation-and-injustice approach to history, and the promote patriotism approach favored by Lynne Cheney. (Books like Larry Schweikart’s A Patriot’s History of the United States: From Columbus’ Great Discovery to the War on Terror will never sit comfortably on the same shelf as titles like James W. Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong.) The AP U.S. History controversy is only the most recent battle in our country’s perennial “history wars.” When the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opens its doors on the National Mall next year, the debate on the character of the United States will be refreshed once again. Is racism a thing of the past? How you answer this question may now be a better barometer of your political leanings than Joseph’s Epstein famous ‘60s “political Rorschach test”: “Tell me what you think of that period and I shall tell you what your politics are.”

Hartman’s evocative book title comes from Pat Buchanan’s 1992 Republican National Convention speech. Announcing a “war for the soul of America,” Buchanan said that the culture wars struggle was no less important than the “Cold War itself.” As a source of the culture wars, “the soul of America” is a bottomless well. For better or worse, it will never run dry.

Jeffrey Aaron Snyder is assistant professor in the Educational Studies department at Carleton College. He is completing a book titled Making Black History: The Color Line, Culture, and Race in the Age of Jim Crow, to be published by the University of Georgia Press.

Does Religion Cause Violence?

Everyone knows that religion has a dangerous tendency to promote violence. This story is part of the conventional wisdom of Western societies, and it underlies many of our institutions and policies, from limits on the public role of religion to efforts to promote democracy in the Middle East.

In this essay, I am going to challenge that conventional wisdom, but not in the ways it is usually challenged by people who identify themselves as religious. Such people will sometimes argue that the real motivation behind so-called religious violence is in fact economic and political, not religious. Others will argue that people who do violence are, by definition, not religious. The Crusader is not really a Christian, for example, because he doesn't really understand the meaning of Christianity. I don't think that either of these arguments works. In the first place, it is impossible to separate out religious from economic and political motives in such a way that religious motives are innocent of violence. How could one, for example, separate religion from politics in Islam, when Muslims themselves make no such separation? In the second place, it may be the case that the Crusader has misappropriated the true message of Christ, but one cannot therefore excuse Christianity of all responsibility. Christianity is not primarily a set of doctrines, but a lived historical experience embodied and shaped by the empirically observable actions of Christians. So I have no intention of excusing Christianity or Islam or any other faith system from careful analysis. Given certain conditions, Christianity, Islam, and other faiths can and do contribute to violence.

But what is implied in the conventional wisdom that religion is prone to violence is that Christianity, Islam, and other faiths are more inclined toward violence than ideologies and institutions that are identified as "secular." It is this story that I will challenge here. I will do so in two steps. First, I will show that the division of ideologies and institutions into the categories "religious" and "secular" is an arbitrary and incoherent division. When we examine academic arguments that religion causes violence, we find that what does or does not count as religion is based on subjective and indefensible assumptions. As a result certain kinds of violence are condemned, and others are ignored. Second, I ask, "If the idea that there is something called 'religion' that is more violent than so-called 'secular' phenomena is so incoherent, why is the idea so pervasive?" The answer, I think, is that we in the West find it comforting and ideologically useful. The myth of religious violence helps create a blind spot about the violence of the putatively secular nation-state. We like to believe that the liberal state arose to make peace between warring religious factions. Today, the Western liberal state is charged with the burden of creating peace in the face of the cruel religious fanaticism of the Muslim world. The myth of religious violence promotes a dichotomy between us in the secular West who are rational and peacemaking, and them, the hordes of violent religious fanatics in the Muslim world. Their violence is religious, and therefore irrational and divisive. Our violence, on the other hand, is rational, peacemaking, and necessary. Regrettably, we find ourselves forced to bomb them into the higher rationality.

The Incoherence of the Argument
The English-speaking academic world has been inundated—especially since September 11, 2001—by books and articles attempting to explain why religion has a peculiar tendency toward violence. They come from authors in many different fields: sociology, political science, religious studies, history, theology. I don't have time here to analyze each argument in depth, but I will examine a variety of examples—taken from some of the most prominent books on the subject—of what they all have in common: an inability to find a convincing way to separate religious violence from secular violence.

Charles Kimball's book When Religion Becomes Evil begins with the following claim: "It is somewhat trite, but nevertheless sadly true, to say that more wars have been waged, more people killed, and these days more evil perpetrated in the name of religion than by any other institutional force in human history." 1 Kimball apparently considers this claim too trite to need proving, for he makes no attempt to reinforce it with evidence. If one were to try to prove it, one would need a concept of religion that would be at least theoretically separable from other institutional forces over the course of history. Kimball does not identify those rival institutional forces, but an obvious contender might be political institutions: tribes, empires, kingdoms, fiefs, states, and so on. The problem is that religion was not considered something separable from such political institutions until the modern era, and then primarily in the West. What sense could be made of separating out Egyptian or Roman "religion" from the Egyptian or Roman "state"? Is Aztec "politics" to blame for their bloody human sacrifices, or is Aztec "religion" to blame? As Wilfred Cantwell Smith showed in his landmark 1962 book, The Meaning and End of Religion, "religion" as a discrete category of human activity separable from "culture," "politics," and other areas of life is an invention of the modern West. In the course of a detailed historical study of the concept "religion," Smith was compelled to conclude that in premodern Europe there was no significant concept equivalent to what we think of as "religion," and furthermore there is no "closely equivalent concept in any culture that has not been influenced by the modern West." 2 Since Smith's book, Russell McCutcheon, Richard King, Derek Peterson, and a host of other scholars have demonstrated how European colonial bureaucrats invented the concept of religion in the course of categorizing non-Western colonized cultures as irrational and antimodern. 3

Now that we do have a separate concept of "religion," though, is the concept a coherent one? Jonathan Z. Smith writes: "Religion is solely the creation of the scholar's study . . . . Religion has no independent existence apart from the academy." 4 Brian C. Wilson says that the inability to define religion is "almost an article of methodological dogma" in the field of religious studies. 5 Timothy Fitzgerald argues that there is no coherent concept of religion the term should be regarded as a form of mystification and scrapped. 6 We have one group of scholars convinced that religion causes violence, and another group of scholars which does not think that there is such a thing as "religion," except as an intellectual construct of highly dubious value.

The former group carries on as if the latter did not exist. Kimball is one of the few who acknowledges the problem, but he dismisses it as merely semantic. Describing how flustered his students become when he asks them to write a definition of "religion," Kimball asserts, "Clearly these bright students know what religion is" they just have trouble defining it. After all, Kimball assures us, "Religion is a central feature of human life. We all see many indications of it every day, and we all know it when we see it." 7 When an academic says such a thing, you should react as you would when a used car salesman says, "Everybody knows this is a good car." The fact is that we don't all know it when we see it. A survey of religious studies literature finds totems, witchcraft, the rights of man, Marxism, liberalism, Japanese tea ceremonies, nationalism, sports, free market ideology, and a host of other institutions and practices treated under the rubric "religion." 8 If one tries to limit the definition of religion to belief in God or gods, then certain belief systems that are usually called "religions" are eliminated, such as Theravada Buddhism and Confucianism. If the definition is expanded to include such belief systems, then all sorts of practices, including many that are usually labeled "secular," fall under the definition of religion. Many institutions and ideologies that do not explicitly refer to God or gods function in the same way as those that do. The case for nationalism as a religion, for example, has been made repeatedly from Carlton Hayes's 1960 classic Nationalism: A Religion to more recent works by Peter van der Veer, Talal Asad, Carolyn Marvin, and others. 9 Carolyn Marvin argues that "nationalism is the most powerful religion in the United States." 10

At this point I can imagine an objection being raised that goes like this: "So the concept of religion has some fuzzy edges. So does every concept. We might not be able to nail down, once and for all and in all cases, what a 'culture' is, or what qualifies as 'politics,' for example, but nevertheless the concepts remain useful. All may not agree on the periphery of these concepts, but sufficient agreement on the center of such concepts makes them practical and functional. Most people know that 'religion' includes Christianity, Islam, Judaism, and the major 'world religions.' Whether or not Buddhism or Confucianism fits is a boundary dispute best left up to scholars who make their living splitting hairs."

This appears to be a commonsense response, but it misses the point rather completely. In the first place, when some scholars question whether the category of religion is useful at all, it is more than a boundary dispute. There are some who do not believe there is a center. In the second place, and much more significantly, the problem with the "religion and violence" arguments is not that their working definitions of religion are too fuzzy. The problem is precisely the opposite. Their implicit definitions of religion are unjustifiably clear about what does and does not qualify as a religion. Certain belief systems, like Islam, are condemned, while certain others, like nationalism, are arbitrarily ignored.

This becomes most apparent when the authors in question attempt to explain why religion is so prone to violence. Although theories vary, we can sort them into three categories: religion is absolutist, religion is divisive, and religion is irrational. Many authors appeal to more than one of these arguments. In the face of evidence that so-called secular ideologies and institutions can be just as absolutist, divisive, or irrational, these authors tend to erect an arbitrary barrier between "secular" and "religious" ideologies and institutions, and ignore the former.

Consider the case of the preeminent historian Martin Marty. In a book on public religion, Politics, Religion, and the Common Good, Marty argues that religion has a particular tendency to be divisive and therefore violent. When it comes to defining what "religion" means, however, Marty lists 17 different definitions of religion, then begs off giving his own definition, since, he says, "[s]cholars will never agree on the definition of religion." Instead, Marty gives a list of five "features" that mark a religion. He then proceeds to show how "politics" displays all five of the same features. Religion focuses our ultimate concern, and so does politics. Religion builds community, and so does politics. Religion appeals to myth and symbol, and politics "mimics" this appeal in devotion to the flag, war memorials, and so on. Religion uses rites and ceremonies, such as circumcision and baptism, and "[p]olitics also depends on rites and ceremonies," even in avowedly secular nations. Religion requires followers to behave in certain ways, and "[p]olitics and governments also demand certain behaviors." In offering five defining features of "religion," and showing how "politics" fits all five, he is trying to show how closely intertwined religion and politics are, but he ends up demolishing any theoretical basis for separating the two. Nevertheless, he continues on to warn of the dangers of religion, while ignoring the violent tendencies of supposedly "secular" politics. For example, Marty cites the many cases of Jehovah's Witnesses who were attacked, beaten, tarred, castrated, and imprisoned in the United States in the 1940s because they believed that followers of Jesus Christ should not salute a flag. One would think that he would draw the obvious conclusion that zealous nationalism can cause violence. Instead, Marty concludes: "it became obvious that religion, which can pose 'us' versus 'them' . . . carries risks and can be perceived by others as dangerous. Religion can cause all kinds of trouble in the public arena." 11 For Marty, "religion" refers not to the ritual vowing of allegiance to a flag, but only to the Jehovah's Witnesses refusal to do so.

As you can see, we need not rely only on McCutcheon, Smith, King, Fitzgerald, and the rest to show us that the religious/secular dichotomy is incoherent. Religion-and-violence theorists inevitably undermine their own distinctions. Take, for example, sociologist Mark Juergensmeyer's book Terror in the Mind of God, perhaps the most widely influential academic book on religion and violence. According to Juergensmeyer, religion exacerbates the tendency to divide people into friends and enemies, good and evil, us and them, by ratcheting divisions up to a cosmic level. "What makes religious violence particularly savage and relentless" is that it puts worldly conflicts in a "larger than life" context of "cosmic war." Secular political conflicts—that is, "more rational" conflicts, such as those over land—are of a fundamentally different character than those in which the stakes have been raised by religious absolutism to cosmic proportions. Religious violence differs from secular violence in that it is symbolic, absolutist, and unrestrained by historical time. 12

However, keeping the notion of cosmic war separate from secular political war is impossible on Juergensmeyer's own terms. Juergensmeyer undermines this distinction in the course of his own analysis. For example, what he says about cosmic war is virtually indistinguishable from what he says about war in general:

Looking closely at the notion of war, one is confronted with the idea of dichotomous opposition on an absolute scale. . . . War suggests an all-or-nothing struggle against an enemy whom one assumes to be determined to destroy. No compromise is deemed possible. The very existence of the opponent is a threat, and until the enemy is either crushed or contained, one's own existence cannot be secure. What is striking about a martial attitude is the certainty of one's position and the willingness to defend it, or impose it on others, to the end.

Such certitude on the part of one side may be regarded as noble by those whose sympathies lie with it and dangerous by those who do not. But either way it is not rational. 13

War provides an excuse not to compromise. In other words, "War provides a reason to be violent. This is true even if the worldly issues at heart in the dispute do not seem to warrant such a ferocious position." The division between mundane secular war and cosmic war vanishes as fast as it was constructed. According to Juergensmeyer, war itself is a "worldview" indeed, "The concept of war provides cosmology, history, and eschatology and offers the reins of political control." "Like the rituals provided by religious traditions, warfare is a participatory drama that exemplifies—and thus explains—the most profound aspects of life." Here, war itself is a kind of religious practice.

At times Juergensmeyer admits the difficulty of separating religious violence from mere political violence. "Much of what I have said about religious terrorism in this book may be applied to other forms of political violence—especially those that are ideological and ethnic in nature." 14 In Juergensmeyer's earlier book, The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State, he writes: "Secular nationalism, like religion, embraces what one scholar calls 'a doctrine of destiny.' One can take this way of looking at secular nationalism a step further and state flatly . . . that secular nationalism is 'a religion.' " 15 These are important concessions. If true, however, they subvert the entire basis of his argument, which is the sharp divide between religious and secular violence.

Other theorists of religion and violence make similar admissions. Kimball, for example, says in passing that "blind religious zealotry is similar to unfettered nationalism," and, indeed, nationalism would seem to fit—at times—all five of Kimball's "warning signs" for when religion turns evil: absolute truth claims, blind obedience, establishment of ideal times, ends justifying means, and the declaration of holy war. The last one would seem to preclude secular ideologies, but as Kimball himself points out, the United States regularly invokes a "cosmic dualism" in its war on terror. 16 Political theorist Bhikhu Parekh similarly undermines his own point in his article on religious violence. According to Parekh,

Although religion can make a valuable contribution to political life, it can also be a pernicious influence, as liberals rightly highlight. It is often absolutist, self-righteous, arrogant, dogmatic, and impatient of compromise. It arouses powerful and sometimes irrational impulses and can easily destabilize society, cause political havoc, and create a veritable hell on earth. . . . It often breeds intolerance of other religions as well as of internal dissent, and has a propensity towards violence. 17

Parekh does not define religion, but assumes the validity of the religious/secular distinction. Nevertheless, he admits that "several secular ideologies, such as some varieties of Marxism, conservatism, and even liberalism have a quasi-religious orientation and form, and conversely formally religious languages sometimes have a secular content, so that the dividing line between a secular and a religious language is sometimes difficult to draw." 18 If this is true, where does it leave his searing indictment of the dangers peculiarly inherent to religion? Powerful irrational impulses are popping up all over, including in liberalism itself, forcing the creation of the category "quasi-religious" to try somehow to corral them all back under the heading of "religion." But if liberalism—which is based on the distinction between religion and the secular—is itself a kind of religion, then the religious/secular distinction crumbles into a heap of contradictions.

For some religion-and-violence theorists, the contradictions are resolved by openly expanding the definition of "religion" to include ideologies and practices that are usually called "secular." In his book Why People Do Bad Things in the Name of Religion, religious studies scholar Richard Wentz blames violence on absolutism. People create absolutes out of fear of their own limitations. Absolutes are projections of a fictional limited self, and people react with violence when others do not accept them. Religion has a peculiar tendency toward absolutism, says Wentz, but he casts a very wide net when considering religion. Wentz believes that religiousness is an inescapable universal human characteristic displayed even by those who reject what is called "organized religion." Faith in technology, secular humanism, consumerism, football fanaticism, and a host of other worldviews can be counted as religions, too. Wentz is compelled to conclude, rather lamely, "Perhaps all of us do bad things in the name of (or as a representative of) religion." 19

Wentz should be commended for his consistency in not trying to erect an artificial division between "religious" and "secular" types of absolutism. The price of consistency, however, is that he evacuates his own argument of explanatory force or usefulness. The word "religion" in the title of his book—Why People Do Bad Things in the Name of Religion—ends up meaning anything people do that gives their lives order and meaning. A more economical title for his book would have been Why People Do Bad Things. The term "religion" is so broad that it serves no useful analytical purpose.

At this point, the religion-and-violence theorist might try to salvage the argument by saying something like this: "Surely secular ideologies such as nationalism can get out of hand, but religion has a much greater tendency toward fanaticism because the object of its truth claims is absolute in ways that secular claims are not. The capitalist knows that money is just a human creation, the liberal democrat is modest about what can be known beyond human experience, the nationalist knows that a country is made of land and mortal people, but the religious believer puts faith in a god or gods or at least a transcendent reality that lays claim to absolute validity. It is this absolutism that makes obedience blind and causes the believer to subjugate all means to a transcendent end."

The problem with this argument is that what counts as "absolute" is decided a priori and is immune to empirical testing. It is based on theological descriptions of beliefs and not on observation of the believers' behavior. Of course Christian orthodoxy would make the theological claim that God is absolute in a way that nothing else is. The problem is that humans are constantly tempted toward idolatry, to putting what is merely relative in the place of God. It is not enough, therefore, to claim that worship of God is absolutist. The real question is, what god is actually being worshiped?

But surely, the objection might go, nobody really thinks the flag or the nation or money or sports idols are their "gods"—that is just a metaphor. However, the question is not simply one of belief, but of behavior. If a person claims to believe in the Christian God but never gets off the couch on Sunday morning and spends the rest of the week in obsessive pursuit of profit in the bond market, then what is "absolute" in that person's life in a functional sense is probably not the Christian God. Matthew 6:24 personifies Mammon as a rival god, not in the conviction that such a divine being really exists, but from the empirical observation that people have a tendency to treat all sorts of things as absolutes.

Suppose we apply an empirical test to the question of absolutism. "Absolute" is itself a vague term, but in the "religion and violence" arguments it appears to indicate the tendency to take something so seriously that violence results. The most relevant empirically testable definition of "absolute," then, would be "that for which one is willing to kill." This test has the advantage of covering behavior, and not simply what one claims to believe. Now let us ask the following two questions: What percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians would be willing to kill for their Christian faith? What percentage would be willing to kill for their country? Whether we attempt to answer these questions by survey or by observing American Christians' behavior in wartime, it seems clear that, at least among American Christians, the nation-state is subject to far more absolutist fervor than Christianity. For most American Christians, even public evangelization is considered to be in poor taste, and yet most endorse organized slaughter on behalf of the nation as sometimes necessary and often laudable. In other countries or other traditions the results of this test might be very different. The point is that such empirical testing is of far more usefulness than general theories about the violence of "religion."

We must conclude that there is no coherent way to isolate "religious" ideologies with a peculiar tendency toward violence from their tamer "secular" counterparts. So-called secular ideologies and institutions like nationalism and liberalism can be just as absolutist, divisive, and irrational as so-called religion. People kill for all sorts of things. An adequate approach to the problem would be resolutely empirical: under what conditions do certain beliefs and practices—jihad, the "invisible hand" of the market, the sacrificial atonement of Christ, the role of the United States as worldwide liberator—turn violent? The point is not simply that "secular" violence should be given equal attention to "religious" violence. The point is that the distinction between "secular" and "religious" violence is unhelpful, misleading, and mystifying, and should be avoided altogether.

What Is the Argument For?
If the conventional wisdom that religion causes violence is so incoherent, why is it so prevalent? I believe it is because we in the West find it useful. In domestic politics, it serves to silence representatives of certain kinds of faiths in the public sphere. The story is told repeatedly that the liberal state has learned to tame the dangerous divisiveness of contending religious beliefs by reducing them to essentially private affairs. In foreign policy, the conventional wisdom helps reinforce and justify Western attitudes and policies toward the non-Western world, especially Muslims, whose primary point of difference with the West is their stubborn refusal to tame religious passions in the public sphere. "We in the West long ago learned the sobering lessons of religious warfare and have moved toward secularization. The liberal nation-state is essentially a peacemaker. Now we only seek to share the blessings of peace with the Muslim world. Regrettably, because of their stubborn fanaticism, it is sometimes necessary to bomb them into liberal democracy." In other words, the myth of religious violence establishes a reassuring dichotomy between their violence—which is absolutist, divisive, and irrational—and our violence—which is modest, unitive, and rational.

The myth of religious violence marks the "clash of civilizations" worldview that attributes Muslims' animosity toward the West to their inability to learn the lessons of history and remove the baneful influence of religion from politics. Mark Juergensmeyer, for example, sets up a "new Cold War" pitting the "resurgence of parochial identities" over against "the secular West." "Like the old Cold War, the confrontation between these new forms of culture-based politics and the secular state is global in its scope, binary in its opposition, occasionally violent, and essentially a difference of ideologies." Although he tries to avoid demonizing "religious nationalists," Juergensmeyer sees them as essentially "anti-modern." The particular ferocity of religious nationalism comes from the "special relationship between religion and violence." The question then becomes "whether religious nationalism can be made compatible with secular nationalism's great virtues: tolerance, respect for human rights, and freedom of expression." Given the war between "reason and religion," however, Juergensmeyer is not optimistic "there is ultimately no satisfactory compromise on an ideological level between religious and secular nationalism." 20

Despite its incoherence, the idea that religion is prone to violence thus enforces a binary opposition between "the secular West" and a religious Other who is essentially irrational and violent. The conflict becomes explicable in terms of the essential qualities of the two opponents, not in terms of actual historical encounters. So, for example, Juergensmeyer attempts to explain the animosity of the religious Other toward America:

Why is America the enemy? This question is hard for observers of international politics to answer, and harder still for ordinary Americans to fathom. Many have watched with horror as their compatriots and symbols of their country have been destroyed by people whom they do not know, from cultures they can scarcely identify on a global atlas, and for reasons that do not seem readily apparent. 21

Nevertheless, Juergensmeyer is able to come up with four reasons "from the frames of reference" of America's enemies. First, America often finds itself cast as a "secondary enemy." "In its role as trading partner and political ally, America has a vested interest in shoring up the stability of regimes around the world. This has often put the United States in the unhappy position of being a defender and promoter of secular governments regarded by their religious opponents as primary foes." Juergensmeyer cites as an example the case of Iran, where "America was tarred by its association with the shah." The second reason often given is that America is the main source of "modern culture," which includes cultural products that others regard as immoral. Third, corporations that trade internationally tend to be based in the United States. Fourth and finally, the fear of globalization has led to a "paranoid vision of American leaders' global designs."

Juergensmeyer acknowledges, "Like all stereotypes, each of these characterizations holds a certain amount of truth." The fall of the Soviet Union has left the United States as the only military superpower, and therefore "an easy target for blame when people have felt that their lives were going askew or were being controlled by forces they could not readily see. Yet, to dislike America is one thing to regard it as a cosmic enemy is quite another." The main problem, according to Juergensmeyer, is "satanization," that is, taking a simple opponent and casting it as a superhuman enemy in a cosmic war. Osama bin Laden, for example, had inflated America into a "mythic monster." 22

The problem with Juergensmeyer's analysis is not just its sanitized account of colonial history, where the United States just happens to find itself associated with bad people. The problem is that history is subordinated to an essentialist account of "religion" in which the religious Others cannot seem to deal rationally with world events. They employ guilt by association. They have paranoid visions of globalization. They stereotype, and blame easy targets, when their lives are disrupted by forces they do not understand. They blow simple oppositions up into cosmic proportions. Understanding Muslim hostility toward America therefore does not require careful scrutiny of America's historical dealings with the Muslim world. Rather, Juergensmeyer turns our attention to the tendency of such "religious" actors to misunderstand such historical events, to blow them out of proportion. Understanding Iranian Shi'ite militancy does not seem to require careful examination of U.S. support for overthrowing Mohammed Mossadegh in 1953 and for the shah's 26-year reign of terror that was to follow. Instead, Juergensmeyer puzzles over why "religious" actors project such mundane things as torture and coups and oil trading into factors in a cosmic war. Juergensmeyer's analysis is comforting for us in the West because it creates a blind spot regarding our own history of violence. It calls attention to anticolonial violence, labeled "religious," and calls attention away from colonial violence, labeled "secular."

The argument that religion is prone to violence is a significant component in the construction of an opposition between "the West and the rest," as Samuel Huntington puts it. 23 Huntington's famous thesis about the "clash of civilizations" was first put forward by Bernard Lewis in an article entitled "The Roots of Muslim Rage": "It should by now be clear that we are facing a mood and a movement far transcending the level of issues and policies and the governments that pursue them. This is no less than a clash of civilizations—the perhaps irrational but surely historic reactions of an ancient rival against our Judeo-Christian heritage, our secular present, and the worldwide expansion of both." 24 As in Juergensmeyer, actual historical issues and policies and events are transcended by a consideration of the irrationality of the Muslim response to the West. The West is a monolithic reality representing modernity, which necessarily includes secularity and rationality, while the Muslim world is an equally monolithic reality which is ancient, that is, lagging behind modernity, because of its essentially religious and irrational character. This opposition of rational and irrational, secular and religious, Western and Muslim is not simply descriptive, but helps to create the opposition that it purports to describe. As Roxanne Euben writes in her study of Islamic fundamentalism, this opposition is part of a larger Enlightenment narrative in which defining reason requires its irrational other:

[E]mbedded in the Enlightenment's (re-)definition and elevation of reason is the creation and subjection of an irrational counterpart: along with the emergence of reason as both the instrument and essence of human achievement, the irrational came to be defined primarily in opposition to what such thinkers saw as the truths of their own distinctive historical epoch. If they were the voices of modernity, freedom, liberation, happiness, reason, nobility, and even natural passion, the irrational was all that came before: tyranny, servility to dogma, self-abnegation, superstition, and false religion. Thus the irrational came to mean the domination of religion in the historical period that preceded it. 25

The problem with grafting Islamic fundamentalism into this narrative, according to Euben, is that it is incapable of understanding the appeal of fundamentalism on its own terms. It dismisses rather than explains. 26 It also exacerbates the enmity that it purports to describe. As Emran Qureshi and Michael Sells put it, "Those who proclaim such a clash of civilizations, speaking for the West or for Islam, exhibit the characteristics of fundamentalism: the assumption of a static essence, knowable immediately, of each civilization, the ability to ignore history and tradition, and the desire to lead the ideological battle on behalf of one of the clashing civilizations." 27

In other words, the opposition of "religious" violence to "secular" peaceableness can lend itself to the justification of violence. In the book Terror and Liberalism, The New Republic contributing editor Paul Berman's call for a "liberal war of liberation" to be "fought around the world" is based on the contrast between liberalism and what he calls the "mad" ideology of Islamism. 28 Similarly, Andrew Sullivan, in a New York Times Magazine article entitled "This Is a Religious War," justifies war against radical Islam on epistemological grounds. He labels it a "religious war," but not in the sense of Islam versus Christianity and Judaism. It is, rather, radical Islam versus Western-style "individual faith and pluralism." The problem with the Islamic world seems to be too much public faith, a loyalty to an absolute that excludes accommodation to other realities: "If faith is that strong, and it dictates a choice between action or eternal damnation, then violence can easily be justified." 29

At root, the problem is epistemological. According to Sullivan, it took Western Christians centuries of bloody "religious wars" to realize "the futility of fighting to the death over something beyond human understanding and so immune to any definitive resolution." The problem with religion is that authoritative truth is simply not available to us mortals in any form that will produce consensus rather than division. Locke, therefore, emerges as Sullivan's hero, for it was Locke who recognized the limits of human understanding of revelation and enshrined those limits in a political theory. Locke and the founding fathers saved us from the curse of killing in the name of religion. "What the founders and Locke were saying was that the ultimate claims of religion should simply not be allowed to interfere with political and religious freedom." 30

In theory, we have the opposition of a cruel fanaticism with a modest and peaceloving tolerance. However, Sullivan's epistemological modesty applies only to the command of God and not to the absolute superiority of our political and cultural system over theirs. According to Sullivan, "We are fighting for the universal principles of our Constitution." Universal knowledge is available to us after all, and it underwrites the "epic battle" we are currently waging against fundamentalisms of all kinds. Sullivan is willing to gird himself with the language of a warrior and underwrite U.S. military adventures in the Middle East in the name of his secular faith. Sullivan entitles his piece "This Is a Religious War," though the irony seems to elude him. On the surface, the myth of religious violence establishes a dichotomy between our peaceloving secular reasonableness and their irrational religious fanaticism. Under the surface often lies an absolute "religious" devotion to the American vision of a hegemonic liberalism that underwrites the necessity of using violence to impose this vision on the Muslim other.

Sam Harris's book about the violence of religion, The End of Faith, dramatically illustrates this double standard. Harris condemns the irrational religious torture of witches, but provides his own argument for torturing terrorists. Harris's book is charged with the conviction that the secular West cannot reason with Muslims, but must deal with them by force. In a chapter entitled "The Problem with Islam," Harris writes: "In our dialogue with the Muslim world, we are confronted by people who hold beliefs for which there is no rational justification and which therefore cannot even be discussed, and yet these are the very beliefs that underlie many of the demands they are likely to make upon us." This is especially a problem if such people gain access to nuclear weapons. "There is little possibility of our having a cold war with an Islamist regime armed with long-range nuclear weapons. . . . In such a situation, the only thing likely to ensure our survival may be a nuclear first strike of our own. Needless to say, this would be an unthinkable crime—as it would kill tens of millions of innocent civilians in a single day—but it may be the only course of action available to us, given what Islamists believe." Muslims then would likely misinterpret this act of "self-defense" as a genocidal crusade, thus plunging the world into nuclear holocaust. "All of this is perfectly insane, of course: I have just described a plausible scenario in which much of the world's population could be annihilated on account of religious ideas that belong on the same shelf with Batman, the philosopher's stone, and unicorns."

In other words, if we have to slaughter millions through a nuclear first strike, it will be the fault of the Muslims and their crazy religious beliefs. Before we get to that point, Harris continues, we must encourage civil society in Islamic countries, but we cannot trust them to vote it in. "It seems all but certain that some form of benign dictatorship will generally be necessary to bridge the gap. But benignity is the key—and if it cannot emerge from within a state, it must be imposed from without. The means of such imposition are necessarily crude: they amount to economic isolation, military intervention (whether open or covert), or some combination of both. While this may seem an exceedingly arrogant doctrine to espouse, it appears we have no alternatives." 31

Harris's book is a particularly blunt version of this type of justification for neocolonial intervention, but he is by no means isolated. His book is enthusiastically endorsed by such academic superstars as Alan Dershowitz, Richard Dawkins, and Peter Singer. Indeed, Harris's logic is little different in practice from the Bush Doctrine, which says that America has access to liberal values that are "right and true for every person, in every society," that we must use our power to promote such values "on every continent," and that America will take preemptive military action if necessary to promote such values. 32 Today, the U.S. military is attempting, through the massive use of violence, to liberate Iraq from religious violence. It is an inherently contradictory effort, and its every failure will be attributed in part to the pernicious influence of religion and its tendency toward violence. If we really wish to understand its failure, however, we will need to question the very myth of religious violence on which such military adventures depend.

  1. Charles Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil (HarperSanFrancisco, 2002), 1.
  2. Wilfred Cantwell Smith, The Meaning and End of Religion (Macmillan, 1962), 19.
  3. See, for example, Russell McCutcheon, Manufacturing Religion: The Discourse on Sui Generis Religion and the Politics of Nostalgia (Oxford University Press, 1997) Richard King, Orientalism and Religion: Postcolonial Theory, India, and 'The Mystic East' (Routledge, 1999) The Invention of Religion: Rethinking Belief in Politics and History, ed. Derek Peterson and Darren Walhof (Rutgers University Press, 2003).
  4. Jonathan Z. Smith, Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown (University of Chicago Press, 1982), xi.
  5. Brian C. Wilson, "From the Lexical to the Polythetic: A Brief History of the Definition of Religion," in What Is Religion? Origins, Definitions, and Explanations (Brill, 1998).
  6. Timothy Fitzgerald, The Ideology of Religious Studies (Oxford University Press, 2000).
  7. Kimball, When Religion BecomesEvil, 15.
  8. See Fitzgerald, Ideology of Religious Studies, 17.
  9. Carlton Hayes, Nationalism: A Religion (Macmillan, 1960) Peter van der Veer, "The Moral State: Religion, Nation, and Empire in Victorian Britain and British India," in Nation and Religion: Perspectives on Europe and Asia, ed. Peter van der Veer and Hartmut Lehmann (Princeton University Press, 1999), 3-9 Talal Asad, "Religion, Nation-state, Secularism," in Nation and Religion, 178-91 Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle, Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag (Cambridge University Press, 1999).
  10. Carolyn Marvin and David W. Ingle, "Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Revisiting Civil Religion," Journal of the American Academy of Religion 64, no. 4 (Winter 1996): 768.
  11. Martin Marty, with Jonathan Moore, Politics, Religion, and the Common Good: Advancing a Distinctly American Conversation About Religion's Role in Our Shared Life (Jossey-Bass Publishers, 2000), 25-26, 10-14, 24.
  12. Mark Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God: The Global Rise of Religious Violence (University of California Press, 2000), 146, 153, 154, 217.
  13. Ibid., 148-49.
  14. Ibid., 149, 155, 217.
  15. Mark Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War? Religious Nationalism Confronts the Secular State (University of California Press, 1993), 15.
  16. Kimball, When Religion Becomes Evil, 38, 36.
  17. Bhikhu Parekh, "The Voice of Religion in Political Discourse," in Religion, Politics, and Peace, ed. Leroy Rouner (University of Notre Dame Press, 1999), 72.
  18. Ibid., 74.
  19. Richard E. Wentz, Why People Do Bad Things in the Name of Religion (Mercer University Press, 1993), 37.
  20. Juergensmeyer, The New Cold War? 1-2, 5, 8, 201.
  21. Juergensmeyer, Terror in the Mind of God, 179.
  22. Ibid., 180, 181, 182.
  23. Samuel Huntington, "If Not Civilizations, What?" Foreign Affairs 72 (November/December 1993): 192.
  24. Bernard Lewis, "The Roots of Muslim Rage," Atlantic Monthly, September 1990, 60.
  25. Roxanne L. Euben, Enemy in the Mirror: Islamic Fundamentalism and the Limits of Modern Rationalism (Princeton University Press, 1999), 34.
  26. Ibid., 14–15.
  27. "Introduction: Constructing the Muslim Enemy," in The New Crusades: Constructing the Muslim Enemy, ed. Emran Qureshi and Michael A. Sells (Columbia University Press, 2003), 28-29.
  28. Paul Berman, Terror and Liberalism (W. W. Norton, 2003), 191, 182. Berman takes issue with Huntington's "clash" thesis, saying that only Islamists see the conflict in such epic terms. "They also looked upon every new event around the world as a stage in Judaism's cosmic struggle against Islam. Their ideology was mad. In wars between liberalism and totalitarianism, the totalitarian picture of the war is always mad."
  29. Andrew Sullivan, "This Is a Religious War," New York Times Magazine, October 7, 2001, 44, 47.
  30. Ibid., 46-47, 53.
  31. Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (W. W. Norton, 2004), 87-92, 192-99, 128-29, 151.
  32. The National Security Strategy of the United States of America, September 2002, prologue and p. 15.

William T. Cavanaugh is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is the author, most recently, of Theopolitical Imagination: Discovering the Liturgy as a Political Act in an Age of Global Consumerism. This essay was presented earlier this year as part of a Lenten series sponsored by Harvard's Memorial Church and Episcopal chaplaincy.

Please follow our Commentary Guidelines when engaging in discussion on this site.

The causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace

The causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace have remained difficult to pin down for many years. The Pilgrimage of Grace was essentially specific to Yorkshire. What would have caused many thousands of people to rise up in Yorkshire to cause a rebellion that clearly rattled the government of Henry VIII?

While much has been written about the Pilgrimage of Grace, it has proved difficult to specifically pin down why so many people rallied to the cause. The document presented to the Duke of Norfolk at Doncaster – the ‘24 Articles’ – should give many clues as the demands should have been directly linked to the grievances of the rebels. However, the document was produced by a select group of nobles. No ‘commoner’ was present, nor invited to attend, and as they constituted the vast bulk of the rebels, their beliefs are seemingly excluded from these articles. Some of the articles are specific to religion, others to political issues. While these articles give a clear indication of what a select group wanted, they cannot be assumed to be what the ‘commoner’ wanted.

Certain rumours are known to have been very common in Yorkshire immediately prior to the rebellion taking hold. One was that Henry was about to order all parish churches to hand over their silver to the government and that they would be replaced with tin ones. There is no evidence that the government of Henry contemplated this but the rumour spread with due speed. Another rumour that spread was that a tax was going to be placed on ‘rites of passage’ – baptism, marriage and burial. This would have made financially pressed families feel even more financially vulnerable if brought in. A final rumour that was popular at this time was that the poorer classes were to be forbidden to eat certain types of food.

While these rumours seem nonsense now, they were believed in the mid-1530’s and with good reason. Many believed that Henry wanted to keep the ‘commoners’ in their place many believed that Henry was so short of money that he would resort to anything to get a new source of cash. Whereas there are religious aspects to these rumours, they also overlap into social and economic issues that dominated lives of the ‘commoner’. It is doubtful if you could have separated all three at the time.

There can be little doubt that religious changes were a main reason for the Pilgrimage of Grace. Robert Aske would not have chosen the title for his followers if the protest had not had a religious input. The Reformation had affected over 100 small monasteries in Lincolnshire and Yorkshire. Many of these monasteries had worked with their local communities in both educational and medical aspects of day-to-day life and the projected loss of these were, at a local level, potentially very negative. There can be little doubt that some pilgrims were also angered at the thought of the Pope’s position being eroded by the introduction of new reforms. Basic religious beliefs had been held since childhood and any attempt to change them must have seemed very threatening.

There is little doubt that some of the rebels also had economic grievances and used the Pilgrimage of Grace to vent their anger. Rent increases seem to have been the primary reason for the anger of some of the ‘commoners’. However, historians who have researched the rebellion tend to play down just how widespread this anger was and point to the fact that rent increases would have been common throughout the country but that the Pilgrimage was limited to the north.

Those nobles who joined the rebellion (as opposed to being forced into it) seem to have done so because they believed that their traditional ‘feudal’ rights were being eroded and replaced with more modern methods that, in their opinion, undermined the power that they believed was theirs by right. The blame for this erosion of local power was put on Thomas Cromwell who wanted to see an expansion of central government’s power within the localities. It was this perceived policy of central intervention that angered the nobility in the north.

With so many people involved in the Pilgrimage, it is almost certain that individuals or small groups had their own reasons for joining. However, any record of what their grievances were has been lost to history. The belief that the Pilgrimage of Grace was primarily a rebellion led by aggrieved nobles backed by ‘commoners’ who, in the main, had serious concerns about the direction of religious reforms seems to be the best accepted cause. This was shown in the 24 Articles presented to Norfolk a Doncaster. If the rebellion was solely based on religious grievances, then the articles would have been purely about religion – similar to Luther’s 95 Theses. However, as the articles contained statements that were political/social, it is safe to conclude that the causes of the Pilgrimage of Grace were a combination of these.